Frightfest: Haunted Ulster Live (2023)

Director: Dominic O'Neill

Running Time: 78 Minutes

Starring: Mark Claney, Aimee Richardson, Antoinette Morelli, Dave Fleming, Andrew Dickson

Establishing his intentions from the opening moments, writer/director Dominic O'Neill crafts a throwback feel of the '90s with an era-appropriate news report. As it transitions into the next program, a continuity announcer warns that it will not be for the faint of heart due to spooky occurrences. On Halloween night in 1998, TV veteran Gerry Burns (Mark Claney) and children's TV presenter Michelle Kelly (Aimee Richardson) host a live show investigating poltergeist activity in a haunted house in Belfast.

While a DJ in the attic lightens the tone by playing "music of a questionable taste," the situation is more spooky within the house with sudden appearances of footprints on the floor and numbers scratched into the wall. As the story shows TV presenters grappling with paranormal activity which has terrorized a family living at the address, it is clear that O'Neill has crafted an effective tribute to 1992's spine-chilling BBC work, Ghostwatch.

Recording equipment is set-up around the house to hopefully capture paranormal happenings, although they also capture behind-the-scenes woes which reach the heart of these characters, each effectively played by the cast members. Gerry is aware of his dying career, bemoaning that not even his stalker wants him, which contrasts with the younger Michelle dismissing rumours that she will present Blue Peter, while struggling with the ridicule stemming from her dyslexia. Worsening matters is a bullying producer who disregards warnings to focus on what will drive up the ratings.

A great sense of humour lurks within this work, particularly when the DJ mentions how he is still alive unlike Gerry Burns' career. Most notable is a line about not holding the show responsible for allowing children to stay up and watch it, which is a fun nod to the controversy Ghostwatch had after its sole airing on the BBC. Although, there may be too many nods to the behind-the-scenes issues the BBC work encountered, especially with the numerous instances of people decrying the live program.

For all the honouring of Lesley Manning and Stephen Volk's film, O'Neill's work does feel trapped in Ghostwatch's shadow for much of its runtime. That changes in the last act, as a chilling turn allows this Irish work to become more independent in a way that also captures how effectively scares are employed. The way technology and sound design are unsettlingly utilized ensures audiences' bones will be rattled long after the credits have rolled.

Haunted Ulster Live made its World Premiere at Frightfest 2023